How to Spot Quality Treatment
Pointing the way to evidence-based care®
Treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) comes in many forms. How can you recognize good treatment when you see it?
When searching for a treatment provider, look for these five signs of higher-quality treatment. There are no guarantees, but providers who have all of these indicators are more likely to offer treatment that is based on the latest scientific research, which can increase your odds of success.
Credentials: What are the provider's qualifications?
Higher-quality alcohol treatment starts with health professionals who have training in addiction treatment. Nationwide, there are thousands of licensed professional therapists with addiction specialties, accredited alcohol treatment programs, and doctors board-certified in addiction medicine or psychiatry.
For addiction counselors or therapists, look for:
- Advanced degree: Master’s degree (MA, MS, MSW), PhD, PsyD, or MD.
- Current license in counseling, therapy, or social work.
- Certification and special training in addiction treatment.
For specialty alcohol treatment programs (inpatient, residential rehab, or outpatient), look for:
- Current license and accreditation by an independent review board.
- Counseling staff with current licenses and certification in addiction treatment.
- At least one medical doctor on staff (hospital/rehab programs) or available to consult as needed (outpatient programs).
For addiction doctors, look for:
- A physician who is board-certified in addiction medicine, or
- A board-certified addiction psychiatrist.
We'll show you how to find these health professionals in How to Search - And What to Ask. See the FAQ on credentials for more information about certification, accreditation, licensure, and other credentials to look for.
Comprehensive assessment: What's the patient's full picture?
Early in the treatment process, the health professional should do a complete assessment of the person’s alcohol use and other medical and behavioral issues. Depending on the setting, the assessment may be done all at once, or it may be done in smaller segments over the first few sessions. It’s important to complete this process because the assessment will form the basis for the treatment plan.
The assessment should cover all the following areas and more:
- Drinking patterns (how much, how often, with what effects).
- Use of other substances.
- General medical health.
- Mental health.
- Job status.
- Housing and transportation.
- Family and social support.
- Legal problems.
All of these issues can influence a person’s recovery process and should be considered when developing a treatment plan. If a provider only asks about alcohol and drug use, it’s not a comprehensive assessment.
Caution! When searching for treatment…
- Steer clear of a provider who only asks about a person’s alcohol and drug use. Many factors influence a person’s recovery process and should be considered when developing a treatment plan.
Personalized treatment plan: Does it meet the patient's unique needs?
Based on the results of a comprehensive assessment, the therapist or doctor should work with the person entering treatment to develop a customized treatment plan. Treatment is not “one size fits all.” Good treatment providers recognize this, and they will be willing and able to offer a combination of behavioral treatment (counseling), medications, and support services matched to the unique needs of each person.
The person with AUD should have a role in developing a treatment plan that will:
- Focus on the person’s own goals for recovery, which might extend beyond their drinking or substance use.
- Provide the basis for measuring progress over time. A good treatment plan is a “living document.” As the person’s needs change, the treatment provider should work with him or her to revise the goals and adjust the type or intensity of treatment.
- Include recommendations for activities or services the person can participate in, including some that are offered outside the treatment setting, such as:
- A mutual-support group, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), LifeRing, or SMART Recovery.
- A social services agency that can help with any legal, job, or housing issues the person may be facing.
Caution! When searching for treatment…
- Steer clear of anyone promising a “cure” for AUD in a certain period of time. Each person has different needs, and there are no quick solutions.
- Steer clear of providers who have a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Treatment plans should be customized to the specific needs of each person, and should change in response to his or her progress.
Science-based therapies: Are treatments backed by research?
Treatments with the strongest chances for success are those that are informed by the results of rigorous scientific research on alcohol use disorder. These evidence-based options include both behavioral treatments and medications.
Behavioral treatments are sometimes called counseling or “talk therapy.” In sessions with the treatment provider, people with AUD learn how to refuse drink offers, avoid situations that can lead to drinking, and increase their motivation to change.
Doctors and counselors will generally offer behavioral treatments in a one-on-one setting. Treatment programs usually also offer group therapy sessions. It’s important to make sure that these group sessions include education and skill-building topics that are led by a trained counselor. Patients in treatment programs should also meet with their own counselors for individual therapy sessions on a regular basis. Learn more about behavioral treatments.
Family counseling can also be an important part of treatment, because it can help to strengthen the person’s relationships to support recovery. Check to see whether a provider offers family therapy or how family members can best get involved.
There are three FDA-approved medications for the treatment of AUD:
- naltrexone (trade names ReVia®, Depade®, or Vivitrol®)
- acamprosate (Campral®)
- disulfiram (Antabuse®)
Some people will respond better to treatment with a prescription for one of these medications, but they don’t work equally well for everyone. In some cases, these medications can help a person reduce their drinking, curb their craving for alcohol, and maintain abstinence. It’s important to know that these medications are not addictive.
Doctors can prescribe AUD medications; in some states, other health professionals may also write prescriptions. If a program or therapist is unable to prescribe AUD medications, they should at least be willing and able to partner with a doctor who can help decide whether the person with AUD is a good candidate for this option. Learn more about medications in this FAQ.
Caution! When searching for treatment…
- Steer clear of any program, physician, or therapist who rejects medications out-of-hand (“We don’t believe in drugs” or “We only offer drug-free treatment”). Current FDA-approved medications for AUD are safe, effective, and not addictive, and they can play an important role in recovery for some people. If a provider refuses to even consider the use of medications, their thinking is not in line with current scientific evidence.
Continuing recovery support: What is the follow up plan?
A good treatment provider will work with each of their patients to develop a long-term strategy for ongoing recovery support after the initial treatment plan ends. These are sometimes called “continuing care plans,” “discharge plans,” or “aftercare” plans. They should include recommended services and activities to support ongoing recovery, as well as a plan for what to do if the person has a relapse. Learn more in Understanding Relapse.